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Two Old Queens Go At It

June 12, 2007

It seems that Gore Vidal is getting bored with his life of hobnobbing and eyeing up young men: The gay writer/pundit is planning on suing fellow gay writer/pundit Edmund White. Canada's National Post reported on June 6 that Vidal is unhappy about White's play, Terre Haute, which is loosely based on Vidal's interest in Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber who was executed in 2001. Vidal never met McVeigh but corresponded with the death row inmate and came out publicly in support of him in print.

White's play fictionalizes the relationship between McVeigh and Vidal (in the drama, they actually meet in person,) and loosely speculates about the writer's sexual attraction to the bomber. The characters' names have been changed by White (McVeigh becomes Harrison and Vidal, James.) The playwright wrote in a recent essay for Britain's Guardian newspaper, that Terre Haute "is about strictly imaginary visits that a Europeanised American, much like Gore Vidal, pays over a period of several days to a death-row prisoner, much like Timothy McVeigh."

The play debuted on British radio in 2005 and received its North American stage premiere in San Francisco a couple of months ago. I wrote an essay about New Conservatory Theatre Center's production for SF Weekly.

No one paid much attention to White's reasonably interesting though by no means fascinating play then, though the production was quite good. But now that the drama has hit the West End, Vidal is baying for the playwright's blood.

By all accounts, Vidal has not bothered to see the play. He really should as he'd quickly understand that there's nothing to wave his walking stick about. The drama portrays the "Vidal" character, James, in an entirely positive way. There's nothing slimy or sleazy about the character's relationship with the prisoner, Harrison. In the production I saw, "Vidal" actually comes off better than "McVeigh." He's almost a cliche of the liberal, American intellectual: sensitive, smart, strong-willed, impeccably turned out, and mildly turned on by a handsome young prisoner in tight-fitting prison fatigues.

I can't say I'm surprised by the news of Vidal's decision to take legal action against White. He's clearly just looking for attention -- a way to kill some of the long, painful, wheelchair-bound hours left of his esteemed life.

What mystifies me more is how a play like Terre Haute could find its way on to the West End in the first place. Though the perfect project for a gay-oriented theatre company like NCTC in San Francisco, the play doesn't go far beyond the surface situation of a gay writer and a prisoner -- it doesn't offer deep insights into the way the world works beyond the immediate circumstances. It's no Angels in America in other words.

Though Terre Haute is a slight play, it's by no means "disgusting" -- as Vidal reportedly attests. The old queen should be happy to have such a flattering portrait of himself up there under the lights on the London stage.

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